Leaders seeking money for city center

Small businesses could get help to stay competitive

August 05, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Sun reporter

With an explosion of high-end retail on the western fringe of Annapolis, city government and business leaders are exploring joining a national downtown revitalization program that would help quaint shops in the historic city center keep their competitive edge.

Though bustling, Annapolis wants to lure the program to make its harbor-side economy healthier, leaders say.

Last week, a crowd of residents and business owners in downtown Annapolis heard Main Street Maryland officials tell them that the program, part of a national network that has successfully re-energized more than 1,200 historic business districts, could help Annapolis.

The state program has traditionally been used to restore commerce and character to once-declining business districts such as Cambridge. The Eastern Shore seafood and canning capital suffered over the decades but is experiencing an upswing this year due in part to renovations led by the Main Street Maryland program, officials said.

The Main Street program could boost commerce in the state capital through tax incentive grants to upgrade aging facades and seasonal festivals near City Dock.

Government and business leaders are trying to find ways to funnel residents and visitors downtown. At the same time, the expansion of Westfield Annapolis Mall, poised to become the largest in the state, and the future Annapolis Towne Center at Parole are vying for shoppers' attention.

"We're not that dilapidated downtown, but with all the growth at Westfield Mall and in Parole, there's some concern that the historic shops won't be able to compete with that," said Mike Miron, the city's economic development director. "Main Street would help us come up with something more cooperative instead of competitive -- maybe a shuttle that links downtown to the mall so shoppers could come, grab a nice meal downtown, do some shopping here."

Mayor Ellen O. Moyer hopes the program would fuel now-dormant plans to make the West Street corridor, from the traffic circle to Route 50, into a picturesque gateway to the state capital.

Sketches for such a plan with plantings and walkways have been sitting quietly in the city's planning office for more than three years, Moyer said, because of funding problems and wrangling with the state and businesses over rights-of-ways.

"West Street was the historic route into the city, that's where I think the dollars and cents need to be applied," Moyer said. "West Street needs to shout out, `Wow, you're now entering the state capital.' But it needs to be seen as a priority by a number of people and agencies, including at the state level. We really need the support of our state delegation and state administration."

Local officials are dreaming big, but snaring such a program won't be quick -- or easy.

First, Miron and Moyer will have to gauge community interest and rally support for a Main Street program over the next several months. The first meeting, held Tuesday, was hopeful. But more meetings over the fall and winter will be necessary, Miron said.

Next, the City Council will have to get on board and might need to pass a resolution of support before the city can proceed with its application.

Third, Main Street Maryland is not accepting applications for new sites. It has not for the last two years. The program has a history of choosing declining downtown areas -- as opposed to prosperous ones like Annapolis, so local officials have a tough pitch ahead of them, Moyer said.

Miron said officials with the program told him last week they might hold a competitive bid for applications in the spring, but administrators for the program did not return calls last Friday about whether this was a possibility.

"We're still very excited about this possibility, and everything about the community meeting was optimistic. I saw everyone from the downtown residential and business community kind of nodding their heads throughout the presentation, so I think there's quite a bit of support for this," Miron said.

Steve Samaras, a longtime downtown Annapolis businessman, said a Main Street initiative could help coordinate efforts like uniform closing times among businesses downtown. Now, the hodgepodge of independent operations close early, many by 5 p.m.

"If we could all stay open later and have consistent closing times, it could really help," said Samaras, who owns Zachary's Jewelers, an anchor store on Main Street. "We can't hope to improve our business if we only stay open while people are at work."

"I've been in downtown for 25 years, and this is the most exciting thing I've heard," Samaras said.

ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

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